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Barbara's Column
May 2001 #1

It's budget time,
and Legislature is up to its old tricks again

by Barbara Anderson


The Salem Evening News
Friday, May 4, 2001

It's spring, and things are breeding and multiplying: birds, bees, good ideas like voluntary contributions instead of forced taxation. This concept, which was filed as a bill for this legislative session, would allow people who want to pay more taxes to voluntarily increase their own income tax rate instead of insisting that all our rates remain higher than 5 percent forever.

During its budget debate, the Massachusetts House passed a version of this bill filed as an amendment by Rep. Fran Marini (R-Hanson). Legislators also passed a voluntary version of the so-called Community Preservation Act (CPA) which allows local voters to raise everyone's property taxes to pay for open space, affordable housing and historic preservation. With this amendment filed by Rep. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth), individual local taxpayers can choose to increase their own property taxes to address these items, even if the community chooses not to enact the CPA property tax hike for everyone.

But as we applaud all this choice and individualism, the concept of "voluntary contribution" not only spreads but mutates. As proponents of campaign finance reform attempted to amend the House budget to fund the voter-created Clean Elections law, the House leadership substituted a voluntary tax increase for the requested general appropriation.

The 96-59 vote said to voters: "fund your own damn law. You want public funding of campaigns, you pay for it on top of your present tax burden" -- which by the way is still the 5th highest per capita in the country.

Proponent Ken White of Common Cause responded that "we don't fund any other state-mandated programs by this mechanism. It's pure chicanery to ask people to increase their individual tax burdens to pay for Clean Elections. The House is punishing voters for having the temerity to ask for competitive elections and a return to genuine democracy."

But opponents of campaign finance reform argued that the commonwealth cannot afford to both fund campaigns and continue to fund vital services. Some accused the voters of inconsistency.

Speaker Tom Finneran's press secretary (now there's a vital service) put out a news release in which Rep. Cory Atkins (D-Concord) was quoted thus: "Seventy percent of the voters voted to use public money to finance political campaigns, yet eighty percent voted to reduce the revenue stream by passing the income tax rollback; therefore, voters should be asked to clarify these contradictory votes."

OK, I'll do that. But first let's clarify the voters percentages: 66 percent of the statewide voters wanted publicly funded campaigns, and 59 percent wanted the rollback. Guess the accurate percentages don't make Cory's point as well, but the point is silly anyhow.

The votes are not contradictory. Voters wanted the Legislature to keep its promise to lower the income tax rate. With the remaining $23 billion or so in state revenues, they want campaign finance to be a priority.

This year's tax revenues, despite the first phase of the income tax rollback, have increased by $1.14 billion over last year's, and there are two months of additional revenues to come before the end of the fiscal year. Billions are coming in from the tobacco settlement to fund health care initiatives. And in case of recession, the state still has almost two billion in its stabilization fund.

Yet it can't afford a few million for campaign finance reform unless it denies social workers a pay raise? Somewhere between 58-70 percent of the voters should be throwing up in disgust.

Salem's Mike Ruane took the microphone during debate to say that "in my heart of hearts, I strongly feel that the Clean Elections bill, so-called, is taking the taxpayers to the cleaners." I believe that he does feel this way and that, unlike many of his colleagues, he didn't vote against it because he fears competition; the voters of Salem quite sensibly elect him year after year and campaign funding has nothing to do with it. He could be right about where the taxpayers would be taken if the law were fully implemented.

I didn't vote for it either. But 67 percent of the voters of Salem did, and the more resistance I see from the legislative leadership, the more I think they may have been right.

Regardless: just as I expect the Legislature to honor the majority decision on Proposition 2, the income tax rollback, and other issues I support, I think it should honor the majority decision on issues I voted against.

Which reminds me: the guaranteed biennial legislative pay raise was on the ballot at the same time as Clean Elections, and passed with 60 percent of the vote. Funny, the Legislature has funded that with a general appropriation without demanding voluntary contributions on top of your existing tax burden.

Hey, Cory, could you clarify this legislative priority-setting for us?


Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.


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